A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the story with female circumcision?

November 1, 1985

Dear Cecil:

Recently I saw beaded skirts in an African museum labeled "worn by circumcised girls." Since then I've been wondering (a) how do you circumcise a woman, (b) why would you circumcise a woman, (c) is this practice continued today, and if so, where? Also, if they cut off what I think they cut off, how does it affect a woman's sexual response?

Cecil replies:

The same way having your feet sawed off affects your ability to polka, as any of the estimated 30 to 75 million victims of this barbaric ritual can testify. While some forms of female circumcision merely involve minor nicking of the clitoris or ritual defloration (manual breaking of the hymen), more radical forms require the complete removal of the clitoris and portions of the labia, an operation known as clitoridectomy. (So-called "Sunna" circumcision, regarded as less radical than some forms of clitoridectomy, calls for the excision of the prepuce and/or tip of the clitoris. Many Muslims believe that this practice was recommended by Muhammad.) Even more appalling is infibulation, in which the entire clitoris, the labia minora, and the labia majora are removed and the vulva is fastened shut with thorns or thread, leaving only a small opening for urination and menstruation. The woman has to be cut open before intercourse. In some cultures the clitoris is cauterized or rubbed with nettles to destroy the nerve endings.

Female circumcision is sometimes performed shortly after birth, but more commonly it is done between the ages of three and eight, often without benefit of anesthesia. Infection and other medical and psychological complications frequently result. Numerous justifications for the practice have been advanced: that it "cures" masturbation (which it does, the same way decapitation cures acne), that it ensures chastity and/or purity, and so on. Feminists argue, with considerable justification, that the real reason is patriarchal fear of female sexuality. But in many cultures female circumcision has become so ingrained that women themselves do most of the dirty work. A Ms. magazine report on the subject some years ago told the story of a little girl who begged her mother to circumcise her so she could be just like the other girls. (The mother only pretended to comply.)

Female circumcision is most prevalent in Africa and the Middle East — one survey estimated that 75 percent of Egyptian women had been subjected to it. But it has turned up from time to time in the West as well. In Victorian England, Dr. Isaac Baker Brown established a special hospital to perform clitoridectomies to cure masturbation, although public outrage forced him to shut down after a short while. In the U.S. a band of quacks led by Dr. E.H. Pratt promoted "orificial surgery," which included not only circumcision but also forcible dilation of the anus as a cure for epilepsy, masturbation, and other ailments. No less an authority than Sigmund Freud once wrote, "The elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity." As late as 1936 a standard pediatric textbook recommended cauterization of the clitoris to stop masturbation.

While female circumcision has largely died out in the developed countries, efforts to suppress it in the Third World have met with less success. International health agencies are reluctant to interfere in local customs, ghastly though they may be, and attempts by outsiders to stamp out the practice frequently meet with fierce resistance. In recent years, however, there have been signs that African women themselves are beginning to organize in opposition to female circumcision. African women's groups presented statements opposing genital mutilation to various UN conferences in 1980. In Egypt, Islamic scholars were persuaded to issue a statement that "the Koran does not mention circumcision, nor is there any definite proof that the Prophet either ordered or recommended it." What with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, though, I'm inclined to think female circumcision may be with us for years to come.

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